It’s a fun time of year to work on an academic calendar. The end of the spring semester, awards and recognition season, and year-end performance reviews for students and staff alike brings a swirl of activity that leaves us evaluating one another. And, to quote Ben Stiller’s character from his tour de force performance in Heavyweights, “the key word here is value. Do you have any?”
Perhaps it’s because of the time of year I find myself in, or perhaps it’s because I am fanatical about praising people when I deem them deserving, but I’ve been thinking a lot about positive feedback. I know, I know. When examining how to give feedback, we pay a tremendous amount of attention to how to elegantly and effectively give negative feedback. How do we keep it from being demoralizing? How do we prevent relationship damage? Will it even get heard? But as the din of those questions increases in volume, the questions of how to effectively give good feedback are washed away.
A pair of posts from friends and colleagues let me know that I’m not alone in my concerns about this.
First, briana Sevigny (who is off to a strong start in her blogging career, by the way- please check out her thoughtful and honest stuff) posted the following, a statement that so many of us are afraid to say openly but ultimately feel:
for a long time, i would say that i wasn’t looking to be validated. that a subtle, peripheral respect would do. that my self-worth did not rely on the acceptance or approval of others. what i was really saying, every single time i denied that need, was that it did matter and it made me angry and sad when i was rejected, disapproved of, condescended to, lied to, disrespected, and so on and so forth. and even though i could see that most mean, miserable things other people did or said were at the core of their own need for validation and light, i couldn’t feel it. not really. so i lied.
There’s nothing in the world wrong with wanting someone to notice and acknowledge when you’re working hard, doing good things, and accomplishing goals. A culture that awkwardly straddles modesty and self-promotion has trained us to shrug off these compliments when they come, and it has led to seeming needy when wanting someone to notice you or your work. But this need is not wrong. Working solely based on this need, working exclusively for extrinsic motivation, is a different affair; the same can be said for wanting praise for doing what is base for your position or role. But the wish for acknowledgement of good work is not a moral failing or emotional weakness. It is simply human nature. Thank you, briana, for voicing this very important point. I haven’t been able to say this better, and you made the point on a day that I truly needed to read it.
But being able to praise good work is an incomplete request. In a week where circumstance and workload combined to leave me exhausted, resentful, and with a feeling of being left to twist in the wind unsupported, I couldn’t understand why the kind words of friends and colleagues weren’t making me feel any better. Please note, it is not to diminish the sentiment behind those words- I appreciate everyone who took time to lift me up at a time I couldn’t do so for myself, you have no idea how much I needed to read or hear those words. But there was something missing still, and Francesca Catalano’s words (another blogger who is saying some wonderful things, and you need to be reading them) helped me discover why:
In my job, I’ve allowed vulnerability to drive actions and have been turned down or just plain dismissed. Additionally, many of the times I’ve received positive feedback, it’s been very general and overall unhelpful. More of a “Way to go, slugger! You’re a star!” than anything I find useful, no matter how hard I insist on specific comments on my work. Usually, I get this vague style of feedback when it seems like I’m desperate for some kind of validation, and so I’ve kind of conditioned myself to resent compliments. [emphasis added]
Francesca makes a key observation that distinguishes praise from good praise. And I thank her for making it, because I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling so hollow even as students would say “thank you” or my boss would say “Good work”. Just as we push ourselves to be specific when giving negative feedback (after all, if we’re general here, nothing will improve!), we should be equally specific when giving praise. Aimless and nonspecific platitudes, particularly in relationships where specificity can be reasonably expected (supervisor/supervisee, mentor/mentee, student employee, etc.), aren’t helpful.
I’ll admit, there have been moments this week when I felt as though I was drowning. It’s just the nature of this time of year. Were I actually drowning, specific instructions would help- it’s to your left! Swim a few strokes forward! It’s red and white, can you see it? It would do no good for someone to throw me a life preserver and say simply, “It’s in the water!” Specific praise, particularly in that moment of desperation that Francesca alluded to, can feel life-affirming or even life-saving at times.
Have you ever gotten praise from a supervisor or higher-up and been left to wonder, “Do you even know what I’m doing?”Just like that pang of disappointment we felt as children when our parents or other important authority figures would praise a painting or a dance move you could tell they weren’t really looking at, a compliment given insincerely or nonspecifically implies inattention or a lack of investment.
This is why, when I’m involved in a search and get thank you notes from candidates, I have a soft spot in my heart for those who provide details. Those who include names, conversation points, or additional questions. These are the attentive folks. These are the folks that will work hard and pay attention to detail. And these are generally the folks that will take care of those around them. We need that, especially when we’re all in the weeds toward the end of the semester and are silently (or, as I did for a brief moment in my boss’ office this week, audibly) screaming for backup and understanding in a vulnerable moment.
As much as I don’t want to make this about a conversation I’m currently watching on Twitter, I can’t ignore the fact that there is a question of validity swirling around the #sachat Awards, currently in their second round of finalization right now. I am a nominee for these awards, and have won one previously, so I am admittedly a beneficiary of the process in place. With that said, I understand the conversations being had. Some feel its a popularity contest, others find it baseless to award Twitter presence over “actual work.” I don’t want to comment on those. What I will say is that presently the nomination process provides categories, and allows those voting to enter the handle of a person they deem fitting. The strategy I’m speaking up for in this post would reimagine this process to include space for nominees to say more about why they’re making a particular nomination. Not just that they feel this person is a source of strength to the community, but why the nominator feels this way, or how this person has, in the nominator’s mind, earned this distinction over others. At the very least, these words could serve as the validation and constructive fuel for future work for the award winner. Not hating on the concept in the slightest, for you will not find a greater proponent for recognition than me, just hoping to make it more constructive.
So this is by no means a cry for help or call for meaningless trophies and “Good job!” stickers. And again, giving accolades for fulfilling the basic duties of our roles is neither necessary nor helpful. Rather, it’s a request to be attentive when things get rough. Thank a coworker for their hard work. But do so with a purpose. Thank them for hard work on a specific project, or with a particular student, or for their assistance with a distinct initiative. Praise like that, praise that shows you’re acknowledging talent and their humanity, is what gets us through the rough times. I’ll let Eliza Doolittle take it from here, she says it far better than I ever could: